Ollantaytambo Perú: History and Architecture of an Inca City in the Sacred Valley

Overview of Ollantaytambo ruins in the sacred valley peru
Ollantatytambo Overview

1. History and Meaning 

      a- What is the History of Ollantaytambo?

      b- When was Ollantaytambo built?

      c- Ollantaytambo Meaning

2. Ollantaytambo Facts

     a- Location

     b- Architecture and Urban layout

     c- Population then and now

     d- How to access it

     e- Train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu

3. Is Ollantaytambo Located Near an Inca Fortress?

4. Is Ollantaytambo on the Inca Trail?

5. Things to Do in Ollantaytambo?  Must-see places

1. History

1a. What is the History of Ollantaytambo?

The conventional interpretation dates Ollantaytambo to the rule of the Inca Pachacutec (1418 – 1471).  Under his leadership, the empire underwent a dramatic expansion by means of military conquests over older, larger civilizations such as the Chancas, the Chinchas and the Chimus.  Fortified settlements were built in strategic locations of conquered lands and Ollantaytambo would have been one such outpost.

During Inca times Ollantaytambo was an important city controlling access to the North Western entrance of the Sacred Valley.  This was the agricultural heartland where corn was first domesticated and grown in abundance on the fertile plains of the Urubamba river valley.  It offered a strategic vantage point from which multiple valleys could be monitored.

Ollantaytambo is also the place where the Incas enjoyed their most important military victory over the Conquistadors.  A retreating Inca rebel army, led by Manco Inca, managed to flood the corn fields at the foot of Ollantaytambo’s fortified terraces.  The advancing Spanish cavalry was bogged in the mud and could not withstand the raining rocks hurled at them from above.  The Incas realized that in the long run they were no match for the war horses and weaponry of the Spaniards and eventually had to escape deeper in the jungle to Vilcabamba.  From there, at the edge of the jungle, they mounted an armed insurrection, which lasted over twenty years. 

Ollantaytambo is one of the oldest, still inhabited human settlements in the Americas.  Wandering through is cobblestoned streets, the traveler takes a step back in time in a way that is quite unique. 

Mamacha with traditional attire Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo, the best-preserved Inca City in the Sacred Valley

1b. When was Ollantaytambo Built?

There is however evidence that the most likely origin of Ollantaytambo actually pre-dates the Incas by at least four hundred years.  In and around the village of Ollantaytambo there are clear signs of far older settlements from the Huari civilization (AD 600 – 1000) so it is quite likely that the Incas simply built upon and enlarged an existing city.  The fortress of Pumamarca, six kilometers east of Ollantaytambo, is one such Huari settlement, which would have served as a military outpost to protect the city from the eastern approaches that lead to the Manu jungle and the fierce tribes that lived within it.  Pumamarca can be reached through a well-preserved Inca trail (Qhapaq Ñan) that starts in Muñaypata.

Qolqas (store houses) of Pinkuylluna
Qolqas of Pinkuylluna

1c. Ollantatytambo Meaning:

Popular folklore has it that ‘Ollantay’ was a general under Pachacutec’s command and ‘Tambo’ in Quechua means resting place, or way station where travelers could be fed and find lodging for the night.   This would imply that general Ollantay used the village as his base.

Another explanation comes from linguistic phonetic studies, which point to the Aimara language.  Here the meaning could be ‘The place where you observe from above’, which would be appropriate for a strategic observation post.

2. Ollantaytambo Facts:

2a. Location

Ollantaytambo is located at the northwest end of the Sacred Valley, furthest away from Cusco (80km), but closest to Machu Picchu (40km).

Ollantaytambo elevation is at 2,800 meters, 600 meters lower than Cusco’s (3,400 meters).  Not only is it easier for travellers to acclimate to altitude in Ollantaytambo, but the average temperature is several degrees warmer and the climate is drier than in Cusco.

2b. Architecture and Urban Layout:

Street in Qosqo Ayllu, Ollantaytambo
A street in Qosqo Ayllu

Ollantaytambo is the closest you will find to what an Inca village looked like.   The layout was that of a grid with cobblestoned streets and running water through open drains that have remained in use for centuries.  The archives of the royal registry state that the city was built for the nobility of the Inca empire.  This is supported by the orderly nature of the city grid and the fine workmanship displayed on the stone masonry.

The Inca imperial city was split in two neighborhoods along an east-west axis. Qosqo Ayllu, on the eastern end, was mainly residential, and shaped as a corn cob with the main square as its stem. Araccama Ayllu, on the western end, had agricultural terraces, shrines and palaces. 

The main temples were built on the slopes to the north of the city on the opposite bank of the Patacancha river.  (See section 3)

The Apu (Sacred Mountain) to the south of the city is called Pinkuylluna.  On its slopes the Incas built several Qolqas (Store houses).   In them, they stored corn, potatoes and textiles, which were later re-distributed amongst the population.  The Qolqas played an important role in the organizational structure of the Inca empire.  The Incas believed in collective effort and re-distribution.  They built Qolqas along their main urban centers to enable their administrative system.

Also to be found on the cliffs of the Pinkuylluna is a giant carved face of Tunupa, a pre-Inca deity, God of thunder and volcanoes.  Considered to be a civilizing God, who brought order to the world.  During Inca times his identity was confused with that of Wiracochan.  Ollantaytambo is at the intersection of the Patacancha and Urubamba rivers.  It therefore had a secure water supply.  Nonetheless, the Inca and their predecessors went to great lengths to procure water from multiple other sources, building elaborate aqueducts from numerous springs and lakes, some of which are as far as 20km away.  These were highly skilled engineers with an understanding of irrigation and water hydraulics that was possibly ahead of Europe’s at the time.

Ilanderas Patacancha
Girls from the village of Patacancha hitching a ride home after their weaving lessons

2c. Population Then and Now

Ollantaytambo’s current population is roughly 12,000 inhabitants.  During the Inca empire it must have had a similar population, making it one of their most populous settlements.   An enormous agricultural expanse would have required a vast labor force.  The elaborate building and engineering projects needed thousands of builders and stonemasons.  The military outposts would have had a large standing army.  The temples would have had large numbers of priests and scholars.  The nobles would have had staff to tend for them.  This urban population supported by the development of large-scale farming of corn.     

2d. How to Access Ollantaytambo:

Ollantaytambo is best reached from Cusco by car. There are three main roads to access it:

  • Cusco-Pisac-Calca-Urubamba-Ollantaytambo (96 km)
  • Cusco-Chinchero-Urubamba-Ollantaytambo (81 km)
  • Cusco-Anta-Huarocondo-Phirry-Ollantaytambo (70 km). This road is the fastest and also the most comfortable drive.  

During the rainy season (Mid-November – March) it is advised not to take this road because of the frequent landslides.         

During the dry months, Ollantaytambo can also be reached by train from Poroy (Cusco’s train station).

Ollantaytambo's Train Station: The link to Machu Picchu

2e. Train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu:

The link from Ollantaytambo train station is the main access point to Machu Picchu. The journey takes just under 1 hour 30 minutes.  Inka Rail and Peru Rail are the two train operators that takes you from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (base train station to Machu Picchu).  They have departures from as early as 5 am up until 9 pm.   The last trains departing from Machu Picchu also at 9pm.  For details on how to reach Machu Picchu, please read our blog: https://www.lasqolqas.com/where-is-machu-picchu-and-how-do-i-get-there/

3. Is Ollantaytambo Located Near an Inca Fortress?

Yes, Ollantaytambo’s main temple complex is built on a steep hill. Retention walls and a bordering defensive wall give it the appearance of a fortified city.   What is usually called the inca fortress was actually a ceremonial complex comprising the Temple of the Sun, agricultural terraces, Qolqas, The temple of the Condor and the Royal baths. The Temple of the Sun has some of the most impressive cyclopean stone works in the world.  80-ton stones were polished to perfection, forming a three-dimensional puzzle.   The archaeological complex served religious and scientific purposes.  There is ample evidence that it was used to observe the passage of time and measure the seasons.  Numerous sun clocks mark the summer and winter solstices, which in turn would trigger the start of sowing & harvesting. 

4) Is Ollantaytambo on the Inca Trail?

Ollantaytambo has numerous stretches of very well-preserved Inca Trails (Qhapaq Ñans) such as the one between Pachar and Ollantaytambo, or another between Muñaypata and Pumamarca.  The Incas had a road system, which connected all four corners of their Empire with Cusco at its center.  The roads covered roughly 22,500 km, comparable in expanse to that of the Roman Empire.  

By far the best-known stretch of the Inca trail is the one between Km 82 (official entrance to the trail) and Machu Picchu.  Ollantaytambo serves as the starting point for most people who walk on that trail.  The porters that support this Inca trail have historically originated from the villages of Huilloc and Patacancha, both situated to the east of Ollantaytambo and well worth a visit.  They have retained their traditions and are known for their weaving and colorful textiles.

 

Inca Trail from Pumamarca to Ollantaytambo
Inca Trail through the fields of Choquebamba, near Pumamarca

5) Things to Do in Ollantaytambo: the Must See Places

What are the most important attractions in Ollantaytambo? The must-see places we recommend are detailed here:

5a. Archaeological Complex checklist ( +/- 2.5 hours) :

  • Terraces
  • Cyclopean walls
  • Temple of the Sun
  • Pyramid of Pacaritampu view
  • Inca Watana hike
  • Tunupa view
  • Profile of the Inca
  • Solar Clock
  • Temple of the Condor
  • Baths of Nobility

5b. Qosqo Ayllu (+/- 1 hour)

Wonder around the cobblestoned streets of the neighbourhood where the nobles of Pachacutec’s court used to live, and travel back in time in one of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements in the Americas.

5c. Pinkuylluna (+/- 1 hour ) hike

Up to the Qolqas perched above Ollantaytambo and get an aerial view of Qosqo Ayllu as well as of the Archaeological complex.

5d. Pumamarca hike along a Qhapaq Ñan (from +/- 3 to +/-5 hours)

Pumamarca is a Huari village    dating back to approximately 900 AD.  It was a military complex meant to guard the access to Ollantaytambo from the jungles to the east.  This hike will give the visitor the opportunity to walk on the Inca trail without the hassle of permits and crowds. To reach it, take a moto taxi from the main square, or walk 1.5 km uphill along the dirt road next to the Patacancha river to the settlement of Muñaypata.  From here take the Inca trail to Pumamarca along the agricultural terraces of Media Luna and Musqa Pukyo.  Make sure to visit the terraces of Choquebamba if time permits.    This hike is 13km roundtrip with a 700 meter vertical climb.  It can be walked in +/- 5 hours, but can be shortened to +/- 3 hours if you take a taxi to Pumamarca and walk down.

Must haves:  Good hiking shoes, sun block, hat, layers for warmth and water-proofing, at least 1 liter of water per person, nuts/fruits/energy bar.  We also recommend to have a pair of walking sticks. More details here:https://www.lasqolqas.com/activities/pumamarca/

 

5e. The Quarries of Cachiccata and the shrine of Inti Punku (Gate of the sun) hike (+/- 6 hours):

This is a physically demanding hike.  It is an 18km roundtrip with a vertical climb of 1,200 meters.  Some stretches are rather steep so a good fitness level is required. An alternative is to hire donkeys / horses to assist on the climb.  

The journey starts at the hanging Inca bridge at the southern entrance to Ollantaytambo.  Take the path downriver and climb to the stone quarries of Cachiccata.  This is where the Pink granite megalithic rocks of the Sun temple came from.  Several cyclopean rocks can be found along the path (Piedras Cansadas).  One can assume that the temple was still in construction at the time of the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors.  The stone masons simply dropped their tools and returned to their places of origin once the Inca empire fell.

You will be treated to breathtaking views of the Urubamba valley, the Pyramid of Pacaritampu, and the Apu Veronica.  The Inti Punku shrine is extremely photogenic and will be an instant favorite of Instagram users.

Must haves:  Good hiking shoes, sun block, hat, layers for warmth and water-proofing, at least 2 liters of water per person, sandwich, nuts/fruits/energy bar.  We also recommend to have a pair of walking sticks. More information available here:

https://www.lasqolqas.com/activities/intipunku/

 

5f. Ñaupa Iglesia and Perolniyoc Hike (+/- 3 hours)

Ñaupa Iglesia is a mystical spot.  It is a pyramid-shaped cave with a portal carved into the living rock.  At the mouth of the cave there is a beautifully polished, blue basalt, altar.  The cave is a veritable mouth to the underworld, where tribute was (and still is) paid to the Pachamama.

To reach the cave drive 3 km from Pachar in the direction of Huarocondo.  Park beyond the bridge and walk for 500 meters railway tracks.  You will reach some agricultural terraces and the cave is above them.  To make the most of your trip we advise visitors to arrange a guided tour from Ollantaytambo.   Ñaupa Iglesia is a 20-minute drive from Ollantaytambo, plus an additional hour to explore the site.

The Perolniyoc waterfall can be reached after a 45 minute walk from the town of Socma, halfway between Pachar and Huarocondo.   This 80 meter waterfall is beautiful and serene.  Perched above it is the fortress of Raqaypata, a heart-shaped citadel with a ceremonial rock at its center.  The journey from Socma to the waterfall and the fortress takes about 3 hours.

 

Must haves:  Good hiking shoes with anti-slip soles, sun block, hat, layers for warmth and water-proofing, at least 1 liter of water per person, nuts/fruits/energy bar.  We also recommend to have a pair of walking sticks.

Plan on a half-day excursion if you intend to do the waterfall, fortress and Ñaupa Iglesia. More information available here:

https://www.lasqolqas.com/activities/perolniyoq-y-naupaiglesia/

5g. Mountain Biking from Muñaypata to Pachar along a Qhapac Ñan (Inca Trail)

Making a pitstop at the award-winning Micro-brewery Cerveceria del Valle.  This is a lovely, moderate to easy ride that starts at the hanging Inca bridge at the entrance to Ollantaytambo.  Upon crossing the Urubamba river, turn left and cycle upstream along an Inca trail.  It offers the rider a unique perspective of the Urubamba river valley and its agricultural terraces.  The prize, halfway through the journey, is to sample the award-winning beers of the Cerveceria del Valle.  On the return journey, the rider can stop at the Mayu café, next to the train station and sample their coffee blends.

Time to spend: 2 hours cycling plus the time you want to spend sampling beers ;).More information available here:

https://www.lasqolqas.com/activities/ollantaytambo-pachar-bike-tour/

5h. Visit the villages of Patacancha and Huilloc (3 to 4 hours tour)

Experience some of the most authentic and traditional villages of the Sacred Valley.  Take a trip back in time and see some of the most colourful textiles in all of Cusco.

5i. Sample some outstanding Peruvian Cuisine

Don’t miss the Local Peruvian Cuisine of Pututu at  Las Qolqas Eco Resort; Chuncho, a traditional restaurant with a great concept bar on the main square; or Apu Veronica, where service is friendly and the food is tasty. 

For more information on Ollantaytambo, an amazing meal, a thirst-quenching drink made of Peruvian liquors, a relaxing massage after a hard day of exploration and a restful sleep in a stylish eco-resort contact us at:

https://www.lasqolqas.com

For more information on Ollantaytambo, an amazing meal, a thirst-quenching drink made of Peruvian liquors, a relaxing massage after a hard day of exploration and a restful sleep in a stylish eco-resort contact us at:

https://www.lasqolqas.com


Las Qolqas Eco Resort

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